This is my contribution to the Huffington Post UK’s month-long Building Modern Men series, reproduced with one addition at the end.
Niall was born in 1976, the year George Lucas started filming Star Wars and my darling Rocky was released. I came five years after him, the first girl child. There had been two boys before me and another would arrive in about 20 months, then two more girls in another few years. A big family, by the standards of these things. I would always consider myself to have more in common with Niall than my other brothers, and to the end I considered him most like me out of all our siblings, right down to (especially to, I suppose obviously) the troubled parts.
He was always imaginative and liked to create scenarios with his Action Men (and a battery-operated Imperial Walker which survives to this day), quite elaborate scenarios throughout the house and in the garden. I would sometimes involve my Barbie dolls in an early nod to gender equality.
My parents would say Niall was always a sensitive child, and it’s hard to put an age on when you might say symptoms of mental health difficulties first showed themselves. Perhaps there and then in the sensitivity itself. I never really considered him to be unwell, more an artist and an outsider of the kind I admired muchly – and whose agony I romanticised, I now realise.
I just considered him to feel everything intensely, lo bueno y lo malo as they say in Spanish… the good and the bad. But in our world this of course often leads to a diagnosis, in his case Depression and, later, Schizophrenia, with all the question marks in between (Schizoaffective Disorder? Personality Disorder? As if it matters, when all he wants is to feel at home enough in the world to get by).
He channelled his angst into creativity, writing and painting like a wild thing through the night to ace his A Levels. He graduated in Drama and Theatre Studies, a mercurial, curly-haired ‘golden O reciting Shakespeare in a parlour-room with chintzy decor’, as a contemporary would later describe him in a beautiful poem she wrote in his memory.
He studied acting further in London at one of those fancy schools, Lamda – in the same class as that Cumberbatch fella in fact, though we wouldn’t know this until several years later when yer man had already hit the big time. According to their classmates, Niall displayed the same raw talent as Sherlock. But he dropped out of the race not long after graduation. He didn’t have the confidence or self-belief to sustain him in the murky world of make-believe.
He had taken drugs of course, probably the wrong drugs at the wrong time when it comes to brain development and susceptibility to mental fragility and all that stuff but here’s not the place for that talk. He regressed from the world a little bit more month by month, year by year, was impossible to pin down via phone, email or knocked door. So easy it is to just turn off our communication devices and leave the door unanswered. He fought his demons alone; is it correct to call that a choice?
I last saw him at the beginning of 2011 when I met him for dinner at an Indian restaurant in West London along with our younger sister, who was up from university in Sussex. He was looking unwell, and obviously now I realise just how unwell, though if I put myself back there I’m not sure I would do anything differently because I remember the insulation one has to develop when existing alongside such a deeply suffering person. You have to compartmentalise to be able to get on with life, paying the bills and all that.
Niall pushed all help away, and there is a space that grows which is the space you give the person because you do feel on a potent level that you are invading their privacy. All my life I was fiercely intimidated by my brother’s intelligence and obvious understanding of bigger things. About the universe and that. He was Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Vincent Van Gogh, Samuel Beckett. He was the guy deep in a depressive state, raw from the break-up with the girl who would turn out to be his last great love, really, who wrapped his arm around me as I sobbed about my A Levels (but really I was weeping about a shit haircut I had just got, on top of the A Level stuff and tumultuous family scene). He repeated to me a few times: ‘You are not alone’.
I trusted him and I believed that he was going to get it together and sell his art on a website he talked about creating. He always said he was waiting on an angel to save him, just like his last girlfriend had (and the other two before that). He must have known he couldn’t save himself.
He died in his flat in November 2011, though we weren’t to know this until the police broke down his door the following month after weeks of us searching for him. A support worker from a homeless charity (he had slept rough at one point) had reported him missing in a move that we, his family, never made because we were accustomed to not hearing from him for months and months at a time: he controlled this (if that’s the correct turn of phrase) and anonymity is so easy in that London.
The coroner wasn’t sure he’d be able to determine a cause of death but in the end it was straightforward, by the standards of these things. Right-sided pneumonia, evidenced by the liquid in my brother’s right lung. But the pneumonia didn’t come from nowhere, obviously. The scene in his flat was a stark one, its level of neglect mirroring that of his self-neglect.
Following his death, I moved away from journalism to a career working with people experiencing difficulties like my brother. Approaching 11.11.16, the fifth year since he left us, I recognise increasingly that this was one way of tackling the guilt that comes with these things.
The key truth I have learnt, also via my own experiences of mental fragility, is that we each have to have the want to push forward, the hope of movement away from the darkness and terror. No one can do this for anyone else, like so many other things in this world it requires that we work at it. People and things can help, of course, but it’s a choice we all ultimately make for ourselves.
Stay connected: this is what we all must do.
Eros, by Niall McCabe
Faceless grins looking down on me
Velvet skies pierced with diamonds
A friendly moon holds me tight
As the rain mingles with the tears on my face
Salty seas of sadness wash over me
Memories disguised as waves creep behind me
Crashing down upon my shoulders
They sweep me over
I dive in, immersing my broken heart
In the fountain of youth
And I drown in myself